Is it better to be a consultant or an employee?

I ran into a former supervisor from many years ago at the local Home Depot this evening. We had a pleasant discussion. It reminded me of a question I asked, right around the time he and I last talked. I asked whether it’s better to be a consultant or an employee.

Here’s what I would say to my 2005 self if I could, somehow. I present it here since I know someone else must have the same question.

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Albert Pujols, mercenary

I’m a Royals fan living in St. Louis, so my perspective on Albert Pujols has always been that he’s the one who got away. He went to high school and college in Kansas City, but somehow Royals scouts overlooked him. The Cardinals signed him, and he became a once-in-a-generation player. Even if he never plays another game in the majors, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Fans loved him, because, well, who doesn’t like a guy who hits .299 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs in the worst year of his career? He’s always been detached and distant, but St. Louisans will forgive that for wins and numbers. He talked about being a Cardinal for life, but then St. Louis woke up on Thursday morning, drove to work, and found out on the rush-hour radio that he was gone, signed to the Los Angeles California Angels of Anaheim, the Tikki Tikki Tembo Nosa Rembo Chari Bari Ruchi Pip Pen Pembo of baseball.

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A couple of links, one with a quote from Yours Truly

Speed traps. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch couldn’t find anyone willing to speak out about them, for fear of becoming a target. Until my phone rang.

The Slackers were right. I pretty much agree with this editorial. I did things a bit differently. But I think the GenX way is more sustainable.On the speed traps story: Minor infractions, like tail lights, speeding by 6 MPH, and illegal window tint catch criminals. So I see that. But Bella Villa and St. George take it too far. I’m pretty sure nobody’s going to rob a bank and then drive through either of those towns.

To me, there are much bigger problems than minor traffic infringements. I see kids riding mini-motorcycles at high speeds on the street all the time. They don’t follow traffic laws, they don’t have licenses, and they’re a danger to everyone: pedestrians, other vehicles, and themselves. Nobody ever seems to bother them, though.

Meanwhile, when you’re certain you’re going to get pulled over for something, you become too self-conscious and make mistakes. It makes you a worse driver. Everyone loses, except for the dinky speed-trap town’s bank account balance.

On GenX: I didn’t buy the total nomad philosophy. I got married, but late. I bought a house, but one I could afford. I realized early enough that I was a mercenary in every potential employer’s eyes. I did buy a small car and continue to drive it. I buy lots of used stuff. I lived sustainably, while putting down shallow roots and making changes that allowed me to do that. And I paid for that car and that house early. Real early.

And I did it while voting Republican, although since I don’t like neoconservative philosophy that relationship is strained. I want the government to live sensibly like I do.

How to get my job (2006 edition)

It seems like every year or two, somebody asks me how to get my job. Given the way the last year or so has gone, I can’t believe anyone’s asking me that question, but it’s been coming back up again. I’ve made some mistakes in my career–obviously–but since I’m still in the field, I must have done a few things right too.

I guess it makes sense to trace my career and see what I would do differently.1984: Yes, it all started when I was 10. I’d wanted a computer for as long as I could remember, and that year, Mom and Dad finally bought one. I spent as much time messing with that old Commodore as I could. And when I wasn’t messing with that Commodore, I was reading about it. It was an obsession. It bordered on unhealthy. Or maybe it was unhealthy.

In high school, if you’d offered me a choice between a date with the best-looking girl in the school or a new Amiga 1200 or 3000, I might very well have taken the computer. Sure, I was interested in girls, but the computer wouldn’t break up with me, right?

I bring this up for one reason: If you’re wanting to get into the field for money, find something else to do. Go into sales or something. If you don’t absolutely love this stuff, you won’t last, so there’s no point in wasting your time.

1994: I started my career in sales. When polite company isn’t around, I say I whored myself out for a large consumer electronics chain. That might be a bit more accurate. In a way it was a good move. A lot of IT people my age started their careers the way I did. It’s better than fast food, at least in regards that IT recruiters use it as a scouting ground. Work there and do well, and it’s just a matter of time before recruiters will want to talk to you.

What I did right: I started filling in for the store’s technician, who frequently had problems showing up for work.

What I’d do differently: First, I’d find out who the best salesperson was, and really learn how to sell. I’ve worked with IT management people who couldn’t figure out how to make their computer play solitaire, but they know a little bit about selling, so their jobs are safe, even though they had no qualifications.

The other thing I’d do differently is to get A+ certification. It’s not strictly necessary to get a better job, but it opens more doors. A lot of jobs require A+ certification just because some idiot in HR (and yes, most of them are idiots) decided it’s a good idea.

1995: I caught a break because I knew both Macintosh and IBM hardware, I knew OS/2, and I had connections at the journalism school at the University of Missouri. A professor mentioned the job opening to me and handed me a phone number. After class I called the number. The guy on the other end asked me what I knew how to do. I told him, he told me he’d pay me $7 an hour, and asked when I could start.

It was supposed to be a temporary gig. But it turned out I knew how to do a lot more than just the grunt work that needed to be done, so they found money to keep me. And when I was about to graduate, they offered me a full-time job.

What I did right: I showed up for work, I did everything they asked me to do, and whenever somebody else was sick and they asked me to try to fill in, I filled in and actually managed to do a decent job.

What I’d do differently: It wasn’t a bad gig, until Yoko Ono came along. Actually she was from Pittsburgh and she was Scottish-American. But the relationship interfered with the job and the job interfered with the relationship. And when something went wrong with one, it messed up the other too. I’d have done well to learn how to separate the two. That’s a lot to ask of someone who’s 23. Now I’m 31 and don’t know how now either. Neither does my 40-year-old boss.

1998: I moved to St. Louis to take another job in IT. This was also the year I re-discovered God and religion. This was a dream job, working for my church. I took a demotion and a pay cut to do it. Of course I didn’t know until I’d already quit my other job that it was a demotion.

I’ll get off track if I talk about it much more than that, so let’s just talk about what went right and wrong.

What I did right: I racked up a lot of impressive statistics and I learned how to do everything they asked me to do. I usually wasn’t happy about it, but I always did as well or better than the person who replaced me. The guy I replaced was a legend and I don’t think anyone would have been able to replace him adequately.

What I did wrong: I shouldn’t have taken the demotion. Not at 23. If you’re married and have kids, I can see taking a demotion so you can work better hours to spend more time with your family. When you’re 23 and single, you can’t waste time climbing a ladder you already climbed once. A banker in Columbia offered me a job as a systems administrator when he found out I knew OS/2. I should have taken it and called St. Louis and told them I wasn’t coming.

This job really went downhill as another relationship was coming to an end too. No need to re-hash that.

I made one other mistake. I won’t elaborate on it. But if you see upper management doing something unethical, LEAVE.

2005: Mercenary time. My first contract was with a very large and very nearly bankrupt cable company. The work wasn’t nearly as interesting or challenging as my previous job, and my coworkers were at either extreme: Some were among the very best people I’d ever worked with, and some of them were just overgrown high school bullies. But it was work, and the pay was fair, which was nice after working for seven years at anywhere from $15,000-$20,000 less than I was worth. Making a double mortgage payment and still having more money left over at the end of the month than I’d had a year before was very nice.

What I did right: I came in, learned quickly, took things seriously, was very professional and very effective.

What I did wrong: I didn’t press in. I did what I was asked, and that was it. That’s what a hired gun does. And the result was I was treated like a hired gun. As soon as the money got tough, I was the first one out the door.

I had coworkers who didn’t want me to learn more about the system. Since they didn’t want to show me, I should have found another way to learn it. And I should have loosened up.

2006: I won’t tell you who I’m working for now, other than to say it’s someone you’ve definitely heard of.

This time, I made an effort to go to lunch with my coworkers. I didn’t do that at the cable company because I was trying to save money. I’d gone without enough money for a couple of months and was deathly afraid of having to do it again. I’m still a tightwad and everyone knows it, but I’m willing to spend $7 to bond with my coworkers once a week. The theory is it’s a lot harder to show the door to someone you like than to someone you barely know.

The other thing I did this time was to steal some responsibility. I volunteer for everything. Sometimes they end up giving it to someone else anyway. But I’m always willing. When people give me some of their old responsibilities, I take them, and I figure out how to do them faster and smarter. After about two months, now my boss is surprised when I do something his way.

My path isn’t the only path. There are two previous bosses I wouldn’t hesitate to work for again. One is a retired U.S. Marine. He went into the Marine Corps as a technician, fixing teletype machines. When teletypes became less important, he moved on to computers. When he retired, he kept on working for the military as a contractor.

Most of my coworkers today took a similar path. Some enjoyed very long careers as defense contractors after their military days came to an end.

That seems to me to be a good route to take if you don’t have a lot of connections. And the upside to the military approach is that you know your job won’t be outsourced to India. That’s a real danger and that danger is going to get a lot bigger before it gets any smaller.

The other previous boss has a degree in psychology. He started working with computers because he found them interesting. I don’t know how he got started in the field, but during the time I worked for him, he was the epitome of connections. He knew everybody, and whenever something goofy came up, he knew how to get in touch with them to get the answer. The result? He’s every bit as entrenched as a tenured professor would be. The difference is there’s no question as to whether that’s a good thing.

Computer stuff will be back soon…

I did very little this weekend, since I actually had a weekend this time around. Saturday I read a lot and slept and played Baseball Mogul, Sunday I got up early and did some laundry, went to church, read a lot, caught up with a couple of old friends I hadn’t talked to in a little while, and I ran Disk Administrator on my Duron-750, the system bluescreened, and now nothing can read the drive and I’m hacked off that I’m going to miss a chance to watch Greg Maddux make a run at 300 wins, Pedro Martinez make a run at Walter Johnson’s old strikeout record (Nolan Ryan was still a long way away), and Mark McGwire make a run at Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs.
Expect to hear more on my data recovery efforts this week. There’s no shortage of tricks I can pull. But supposedly,

Church scared me. Much of the service reminded me of Pepper and Friends, a really corny children’s TV show in Columbia, Mo. Haven’t seen Pepper and Friends? Be glad. Be very, very glad. Imagine Richard Simmons, but even more hyperactive, riling up bunches of kids. Ugh. And now I know what the traditionalists are scared of. As long as it’s just once a year, at the end of Vacation Bible School, I’m fine with it, but now I understand the fear of bubblegum, substance-less church services.

True Confessions of a Male Mercenary. And I found myself playing Older-and-More-Experienced-and-Ever-So-Slightly-Wiser Brother this week. I was talking to someone, and he was telling me about this girl he knows and talking about wanting to ask her out… in a few months. That’s a strategy I’ve successfully used many times in the past… to fall flat on my face. My problem was that as I waited for that opportune moment, whenever that might be, my mind was absolutely racing in the meantime, creating grandiose images of the woman I was pursuing that often turned out to be mere fiction. And what’s the girl thinking as all of this is going on? Let me consult my quote wall:

“The best part of a relationship for most people is when it’s just beginning, and they can make this person in their own mind into this creature that doesn’t exist.”

Ouch. Aimee Mann said that in an interview, years ago, and I just had to write that one down for the wall. She knows a little bit about bad relationships because she was in several of them.

Besides frustrating the girl, we end up investing far too much emotionally in her, and when she fails to meet our expectations–remember, we’ve just spent a good deal of time making her into someone else who exists only in our very vivid imaginations, so it is a matter of when–we fall hard.

So my advice to him was to spend some time with her, now. That way instead of imagining things about her, he’s learning what she’s really like–because, after all, that sweet, innocent-looking thing could be an axe murderer for all he knows–and he’s giving her a chance to figure out what, if anything, she wants. Otherwise she just has to guess–and since the guy is usually expected to make the first move, she can afford to be cautious. Am I the only one who’s noticed girls are a whole lot more likely to say no than guys are?

And if she does say no? Then you haven’t spent months investing emotionally in someone who isn’t going to return it. And you can get on with life. Trust me. Until he finds The One, a guy can transfer all those emotions almost at will. Some scumbags continue to do it even after they find The One. After all, how many songs say, “it’s not cheating if she reminds me of you?” Of course she reminds him of her–guys know what they like, and they naturally go looking for more of it. (For me, it’s usually dark hair and a past.)

I think most girls at least suspect we’re mercenaries like that; none have ever seemed terribly shocked when I’ve admitted we have the ability. They live with it; they have deep, dark secrets too.

Enough waxing philosophical about life. I’m a fixer, not a philosopher. I’ll try to fix something today–a machine, not a person–and tell you all about it tomorrow.

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